When was the last time you had a contrary opinion at work?
You know when everyone else in the team were sure that something was red but you thought it was green?
Did you voice this opinion, or did you keep it to yourself?
There are many reasons why people might not speak up. They might have a fear of speaking in public, or they could be scared of being wrong, have a fear of being seen as not very knowledgeable, or a fear of upsetting other people.
There could be a fear that saying the wrong thing might cost you your job, or might cost the business the next deal, or damage your relationship with your colleagues.
Lots of very valid reasons for keeping your mouth shut.
But what’s the cost of not talking to your colleagues about what you know, or think you know?
In 1980, in Damascus, Arkansas, Geoff Plum and David Powell, members of the US Air Force, were tasked with the maintenance of the Titan Missile. The Titan was the missile delivery system for a nuclear warhead, stored 15 stories underground, ready for deployment in the cold war.
The pair had entered the missile chamber to remove the dust cap from the missile, where they were going to pump in some liquid to help resolve a low pressure problem that the missile was having.
Suited up like the men who come to take ET away, they realised that they didn’t have the correct torque wrench to remove the dust cap. They’d been delayed in getting in to the chamber and didn’t want to return the 15 stories to the surface to get the right wrench, so they improvised.
They found a three foot metal ratchet which they thought would do the job. The two parts to the ratchet didn’t quite fit together but needing to push on with the maintenance they climbed aboard a hydraulic lift and raised themselves up the side of the missile with a nuclear warhead sitting on top, and started to remove the dust cap.
Each of the men were holding a part of the ratchet, and on completion of the job, Plum handed the socket part to Powell, and the socket falls. It strikes the hydraulic platform, bounces, and heads between the platform and the missile. The socket falls 70 feet, ricochets off a ring that the missile was sitting on and hits the side of the missile
The next thing the men know, rocket fuel is gushing out of the side of the rocket. Rocket fuel that can explode quicker than you can look, and that can melt your skin if it touches you.
Sirens start blaring around the missile base as pressure gauges and warnings get triggered.
The control centre contacts Plum and Powell and asks what’s going on and they describe the gushing rocket fuel, but they do not come forth with the cause of the leak.
The control centre needs to determine the cause in order to figure out what the plan of action is, but they’re missing one important piece of information. The fact that there is a socket sized hole in the side of the rocket.
Minutes pass by as messages get passed up the chain of command, before the evacuation call is made, and an entire nuclear missile base is evacuated, leaving a nuclear missile unguarded. Is there going to be a nuclear explosion in rural Arkansas?
On final pushing for information, eventually Powell comes forward with the all important missing information, but it’s too late. The two airmen sent back in to resolve the situation are standing outside the missile silo when it explodes, sending rocket, bunker and nuclear warheads up into the air.
One person died in the explosion, and 21 people were seriously injured as the entire launch complex was destroyed. How different it could have been if Powell and Plum had simply come forward with the all important information sooner.
Now, we’re not saying that not communicating in your business will result in such catastrophic outcomes, but, imagine what might happen.
That proposed solution to a new approach to delivering something which has been adopted by the team might have a hidden overhead that no-one else has considered, but which you’ve identified. If you don’t communicate your thoughts then the solution might get built without considering this potential downside, which could lead to problems down the line which could impact customers, or even your job.
The fact that you think the best option is green and everyone else thinks red will not be considered if you don’t come forth and show an alternative viewpoint, but coming forth might lead to a conversation about the merits of green and a change in direction that will benefit everyone.
Is it easy to be an alternative voice? Not always. Jeff Sutherland, in his book “Scrum : the art of doing twice the work in half the time” talks about the need for teams to have a ‘Wise Fool”. Someone with enough knowledge to have wisdom on the subject but with enough foolishness to be able to ask the ‘stupid’ questions. The wise fool gets to ask uncomfortable questions or raises uncomfortable truths, but only by doing this do you find the best way forward.
Are you a wise fool?